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Bypassed by reform: Agricultural mechanization 1986

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by Reform:

Agricultural Mechanization 1986



This article is a revised and shortened version of a letter written to Neville Maxwell, one of the founders of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, in March 1985.


Today there is much talk about the modernization of China. Thousands are traveling abroad to study the latest technology; industrial ministries import the most up-to-date equipment for coal mining, steel making, transportation, electronic appliance manufacture; and computers are all the rage. The "information revolution" excites the imagination of the younger generation. But there is one whole sphere that everyone leaves out, and that is the mechanization of agriculture. In the great reorganization of the government that took place during the early years of the reform only one set of institutions disappeared, those dealing with agricultural mechanization. The officials who staffed them only managed to survive as functionaries by creating semi-governmental, semicommercial units with such names as "Agricultural Mechanization Service Station" and titles such as "Station Head." China, it seems, is willing to modernize everything but the physical labor involved in crop production. Still, a big question remains: Can China modernize without mechanizing agriculture?

    Modernization, if it means anything at all, must mean the modernization of production and the heart of modern production has to be a high level of labor productivity. Without high productivity how can one speak of a modern economy, modern science and technology, or modern defense? And since agricultural production is still a major sector of the total economy, if not the major sector, labor productivity in agriculture must also be modernized. Modern industry, science, and technology cannot develop for long on the foundation of a primitive agriculture. An economy that is half-modern, half-primitive is a contradiction in terms. Backwardness in the countryside undermines the smooth development of other spheres, of industry, and of the whole society.

    The key to labor productivity in agriculture is mechanization. Without mechanization labor power cannot leave the land to take up other types of production. Without mechanization tillers on the land cannot produce enough to afford industrial products. Without mechanization, peasants slip into the category of second-class citizens who cannot gain a foothold in modern society because they cannot produce or, as a consequence, consume enough to qualify as participants.

    Current policymakers in China propose to improve agricultural productivity thorough implementation of the "responsibility system," combined with so-called scientific farming. By "scientific farming" they mean improving the genetic makeup of plants and animals, promoting better and more complete fertilizers, applying advanced pest control measures, and paying attention to careful field management, multiple cropping systems, interplanting systems, close planting, deep tillage, and fine tillage.

    On the one hand this "scientific farming" is supposed to increase yields per acre or hectare. The family contract system, on the other hand, is supposed to raise labor productivity by providing direct material incentive for hard and skillful work.

    The reformers downplay, even ignore, agricultural mechanization. The new Five Year Plan (1986-90) mentions mechanization only once, in passing, as something that should be supported, rather like being for virtue and against sin. But scientific farming coupled with hard work cannot hope to solve the problem of productivity on the land. Crop yields in China are already comparatively high. Science and hard work may double yields, they may even triple yields, but it is unlikely that they can quadruple yields. Yet even if by such methods peasants in China could quadruple their yields their productivity as crop producers would still lag far behind world levels. This is true because, in the first place, applying these so-called scientific measures almost always requires additional labor input which offsets, to some extent, the effect of the gain in yield as it relates to labor productivity. And because, in the second place, the productivity gap is so enormous, China must raise productivity not two, four or six times to catch up with the modern world, but several hundred times, as can be seen from Table 1 and Table 2:

Table 1.  Labor days (10 hour days) Per Mu of Corn Harvested


US (Pennsylvania)

.037 (no-till)
.08 (conventional till)

China (Shandong)
  Dongliang village,


  Yeji village, Huang County



Table 2.  Labor days (10 hour days) Per Ton of Corn Produced


US (Pennsylvania)

0.077 (no-till)
0.156 (conventional till)

China (Shandong)
  Dongliang village,


  Yeji village, Huang County


    Looking at the comparative figures for corn production in Pennsylvania and Shandong, we can see that (1) the average Pennsylvania farmer tills from 142 to 405 times as much land as the average peasant in a relatively advanced Shandong village, yet harvests comparable yields; and (2) the average Pennsylvania farmer produces from 213 to 438 time as much grain per labor day as the average peasants in a relatively advanced Shandong village. The only way to redress the balance, to close the gap is mechanization, and mechanization must be included under the application of "science."

    Mechanization not only can be defined as a major aspect of the modern science of tillage or crop production, but by itself, promotes scientific farming in numerous ways. For example, soil organic matter must be increased to promote water absorption, water holding capac ity, and by the same token the availability of fertilizer in the soil. Yet currently peasants commonly burn straw and stalks to get them out of the way of the following crop. And this is because they do not have enough labor power to dispose of them in any other way. Without machines for chopping straw and stalks and without machines for turning them under they have to burn them. This practice threatens yields. Adequately powered machines also promote timely tillage, timely planting, uniform seed spacing, seed depth, fertilizer placement, and herbicide and insecticide application -- often all in one pass across the field. All these factors promote high yields.

The Problem of Unemployment

    The most common objection to any proposal for agricultural mechanization is that there is already much too much labor power in the countryside and that any labor released by mechanization cannot find alternative employment. Mechanization, so conventional wisdom affirms, must create unemployment, which is unacceptable.

    This objection oversimplifies the problem. While in the country as a whole, there may be, and probably is, a surplus of agricultural labor, locally there are many parts of China that lack labor power or will soon lack labor power for farm work. Wherever the economy is developing fast, wherever sidelines and small industries are expanding rapidly, large numbers of peasants are leaving the land, labor shortages are developing, and wages are rising steeply. In 1986 in some parts of Heilongjiang province, farm hands were earning 10 yuan a day -- far more than most workers in Beijing industrial plants. In Guangdong harvest hands were earning 6 yuan a day plus meals, cigarettes, and wine. In Beijing suburban districts, migrant rice transplanters were getting from 6 to 15 yuan a day and even at these rates good workers were hard to find because nobody wants to do stoop labor in the paddies any more. Low labor productivity on the land coupled with expanding economic opportunity off the land causes a number of problems.

    First, able bodied laborers seek higher earnings elsewhere, which means that the less productive workers, the old, the young, the weak, and the female remain on the land as the main force. A depleted labor force does not farm well, resulting in low yields, and land is abandoned by peasants who are unable to cope.


    Partly as a result of the reduced labor force, moreover, the agricultural infrastructure -- terrace walls, drainage ditches, irrigation channels, river dykes, wind breaks, and forest belts -- is neglected. Straw and stalk composting is sharply reduced along with night soil gathering and many other labor intensive practices essential to high, sustained yields.

    Finally, without the sharing of sideline and industrial profits which collectives used to guarantee through the sharing of workpoints team-by-team, peasants are reluctant to contract land for commercial farming. Many communities must therefore still guarantee free seed, free fertilizer, free plowing, and bonus prices for grain before anyone will assume a contract. This diverts community resources that could be invested in expanded reproduction right back into ordinary farm production and thus holds back development. It amounts to a form of ping diao -- the Chinese word for leveling and transferring wealth -- from efficient to inefficient producers, something the responsibility system was supposed to get away from. Far from getting away from this, however, the new system has only reproduced it in a new form. And where do the communities get the money for this? They get it from the contract fees that individuals pay for the use of industrial and commercial properties and assets. Industry supports agriculture after all.

    Many well-organized, well-managed villages in rapidly developing areas feel the labor pinch acutely. In Dongliang village, Chaoyuan county, Shandong, which has 1,600 ablebodied laborers, village leaders project that by 1990 they will lack 473 workers. This is because they are planning to create several new industries. They want to release the needed workers from the fields with a higher level of mechanization.

    Yeji village, Huang county, Shandong, which has 1350 ablebodied workers, projects a shortage of 213 by 1990. Yeji leaders also want to release hundreds from the fields with mechanization. Only mechanization can solve these problems. A moderate investment in new machinery can raise productivity by a multiple of ten right away. This machinery can also raise yields, lower unit production costs, and encourage some of the best ablebodied workers to stay on the land instead of leaving it.

    Labor shortages are evident in regions of three different types:

(1) rural areas where sidelines, small industries and mining are expanding rapidly;

 (2) rural areas on the outskirts of most large and many medium-sized cities;


(3) rural areas where land is plentiful and people are few -- the Northeast, the Northwest, and Inner Mongolia. Together these areas add up to more than 30 percent of China.

    In areas of the first two types the transfer of labor into sidelines, small industries, and mines, creating shortages and raising wage rates, has created very favorable conditions for mechanization. There profits from nonagricultural production, accumulated by collectives and by individuals also ensure investment funds.

    However, in these areas, mechanization is difficult due to the complexity and variety of the cropping systems, the variety of the crops, the current small size of the fields, and the many special situations that require the invention of new types of machinery or the radical adaptation of old types. The people and units concerned have not done nearly enough research and development work to determine the type of machines and implements needed and cannot supply effective sets of mechanization tools any time soon. Social and economic developments have outpaced all technical efforts.

    In areas of the third type, in contrast, mechanization is comparatively easy because machines imported from Europe and North America can be put to work with little modification. The prototypes already exist. The main problem here is lack of capital.

    Mechanization should begin immediately in areas of these three types because conditions are ripe and the demand is great. But whenever such action is proposed people always raise the problem of the mountainous areas, the hillside rice areas, the backward loess highlands, and other difficult to mechanize regions, implying that mechanization should not begin anywhere unless it can be applied everywhere. But the truth of the matter is that the mechanization of the more advanced and more easily mechanized areas will be a tremendous boon to the poor, backward, mountainous areas once they too have created the social conditions, primarily the alternative employment opportunities, for reducing the farm labor force. A wide variety of tractors and implements will by then already exist, most of the options necessary will already be available and most production problems will already have been solved. Clearly the policy should be "Let some areas mechanize first." This will clear the way for those who follow.

Problems of Scale and Scope

    Once a commitment to mechanization is made, a decision must be taken regarding what size of machinery should take precedence. Should China concentrate efforts on creating implements for small, 15-horsepower walking and four-wheeled tractors and depend on such equipment for future production or concentrate effort on creating implements for medium-sized 40-100 horsepower tractors and depend on them for the future?

    Some people argue that since so many small walking and four-wheeled tractors have been produced and since so many peasants already own them they should be the mainstay of the mechanization effort. In my opinion, this would be a very impractical course. Too many farm tasks are beyond the power of these machines. Deep plowing, heavy discing, deep chiseling, land leveling, stalk chopping, manure hauling and spreading, corn picking, and many other harvest chores cannot be done or can only be done at heavy cost with low horsepower machines. Already yields are suffering because small tractors cannot plow more than a few inches deep. Shallow hardpans are forming just below the surface that these same small tractors cannot break up.

    It would make much more sense to make medium-sized tractors in the 40-100 horsepower range the mainstay of China's mechanization. Such tractors, well supplied with complete sets of implements, can do a whole range of farm jobs from tillage to harvesting with a relatively high level of efficiency. Communities should put land together in blocks to make their work rational.

    Each medium-sized tractor, well equipped, can handle from 1000 to 2000 mu of regular crop land, perhaps somewhat less of paddy rice. Since most villages in the north have from 1000 to 4000 mu of crops such medium-sized sets are suited to a management scale that still exists or can easily be revived. Planning can be done on a village-wide basis with mechanization teams or mechanization specialists providing land contractors with a wide variety of services. In such a scheme there will still be a place for the small walking and four-wheeled tractors that can provide field transport, spot spraying and other random light services.

    The heart of the matter remains: mechanization, to be successful, must have some scale. To go all out at the 15 horsepower level is to condemn China to a chronically backward agriculture.

Another issue concerns the seasonal focus of mechanization: Should China focus on mechanization of rush season work or strive for the all-around mechanization of farm tasks? There is a strong bias in China for mechanizing only the rush season jobs, the jobs that clearly strain the labor capacity of the community. In my view this is shortsighted. The only way to truly liberate manpower is through the all-around mechanization of farm tasks. The whole production process of each crop should be mechanized. Only thus can farming specialists or mechanization teams contract ever larger areas of cropland while others transfer time and attention elsewhere.

    All-around mechanization can raise labor productivity many times over in a short time and can simultaneously greatly increase the hours worked per machine, especially the hours worked per tractor, thus reducing the costs of ownership and spreading depreciation over far more performance. Tractors should be supplied with enough equipment, enough implements so that they can not only plow, fit, and plant land, but also spread fertilizer before, during, and after planting, spray herbicides and insecticides, pile, turn, haul, and spread manure and compost, harvest a wide variety of crops, chop and spread stalks, level land, and so on.

Variety and Flexibility Needed

    Technically, all-around mechanization is not very difficult, but some general warnings should be heeded:

    First, China should not try to "reinvent the wheel." -- that is, China should try out what has already been invented in the world first, altering it and modifying it to suit Chinese conditions wherever necessary. Chinese agriculture is complex and varied, but for almost every operation now done by hand there is already a fairly efficient machine at work in the world.

    Second, China should be willing to change tillage and cropping methods to suit machine cultivation requirements that are reasonable. Many technicians and many peasants put up strong resistance to this idea, insisting that the machine do exactly what the peasant does by hand even though there is no scientific evidence that this or that particular hand method is better or results in higher yields or in a better quality crop. Thus many people insist on placing manure and compost in the hill, under the seed of both corn and wheat, something that is very difficult to do by machine, even when all evidence shows that broadcasting manure and compost and working it into all the ground produces equal, if not better, results.

    Peasants should be educated and mobilized by effective demonstrations to accept:

    (a) Row widths suited to machine cultivation. The main determinant here is the width of the tractor and/or implement tire that must pass between the rows.

    (b) Precision planting that requires no thinning. This must be coupled with radical seed quality improvement since the method requires seed of proven germination.

    (c) Seed drilling rather than seed placed in hills.

    (d) Broadcast or drilled fertilizer in place of hill placement.

    (e) Some minimum and even no-till where suitable. No-till has proven particularly advantageous where corn or beans follow winter wheat on the North China Plain. Planting without tilling prevents water logging after heavy rains and cracking when the soils dry out.

    (f) Dry planted rice.

    (g) The combining of crops that yield straw. Peasants always say they don't want the straw mashed by a combine, but very little straw is actually used for weaving, braiding or plaiting. Where straw is so used special measures must be taken.

    (h) New cropping systems such as three crops in two years instead of two crops in one year and less intercropping. Guided by the idea that labor costs practically nothing and is everywhere in surplus extension specialists in China have almost invariably promoted multicropping and intercropping practices that make enormous demands on labor even when there is very little sound evidence that the practice makes for better results. In Japan recently, farmers converted large areas of double cropped land to single crop long season rice and raised the yield per hectare. The same thing happened when peasants abandoned triple cropping for double in Sichuan.

    Third, China should strive to provide as many options as possible on all basic machines. Most combines can handle up to thirty different crops. For each crop some special equipment may be necessary -- special headers, special cylinders, special chaffers and screens, straw choppers, wheel weights, tracks in place of wheels, wide wheels or narrow wheels, and so on. Currently machines and implements come with very few options. When peasants try them and they don't work well they assume that machines cannot do the job. Such experiences greatly inhibit the development of mechanization.

    China plants row crops with various spacings, depending on the region, the crop, and the intercrop. Tractors and implements should be made with easily adjustable wheels for wide tracking, narrow tracking, and everything in between, including single front wheel steering. All planters, cultivators, harvesters etc. should be made so that they can be adjusted for various row widths, crop heights, and other special conditions.

    Fourth, to assure variety the farm machinery industry should plan on small runs of diverse products. Industry should not expect to or plan to make endless copies of any single prototype. Modern automated machine tools can easily be adapted to small runs, model changes, variations on a basic pattern. Instead of retooling, modern factories reprogram. In Japan private families own automated machine tools and contract small runs from large plants. The heart of the matter is flexibility.

    Finally, China should not consider a problem solved just because one solution has been found, one prototype created. China urgently needs two-way plows for irrigated land, subsoil plows for hard pan, light, tractor mounted corn pickers for small fields and many other implements commonly used abroad. The goal of the farm machinery industry should be to provide diverse options so that peasants in many different regions growing many different crops can solve their unique cropping problems.

Appropriate Social Organization

    Most important is the problem of what overall social and political organizations can best promote mechanization. In 1985 and 1986 I visited a number of advanced villages with above average mechanization levels. Every one of them has a strong collective core. They carry out most important steps in production through a central mechanization team organized by the community or through a contracting specialist and pay the team or contractor for work done at piecework rates. Individual families contract all the fields but personally carry out only certain phases of field management -- flood irrigation, side dressing of fertilizer, or hand spraying. The mechanized activity determines yields, in the main, and not the lesser manual activities. Hence yields tend to be both high and uniform.

    I feel that the most appropriate form for mechanization is a strong village collective that coordinates the work of all contracting families, draws up a uniform cropping plan, supplies all necessary inputs through joint buying, and provides machine services from a centrally owned or controlled center. Such a system combines individual responsibility with collective strength. It practices four unities, mentioned by almost all the communities I visited: (1) unified planning, (2) unified purchase of seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and other inputs, (3) unified application of technical measures; and (4) unified allocation and operation of machinery. With such a system peasants can achieve scale in crop production, can plant large areas of one crop together, and can deploy machinery economically.

    The only alternative to this is to encourage farming specialists to contract larger and larger tracts on their own and purchase their own machinery. But even a 600 mu tract is too small to warrant a complete set of machinery. If any community chooses the specialist route it still must consider the creation of a central machinery group to do custom work for the specialists. Either that or several specialists must get together and share the necessary equipment, a difficult form of cooperation. Between the two forms the first has greater potential for development, now and in the future. The second is more difficult to create, to organize, and to sustain. It is far less stable.

    If the government grants subsidies or credits to stimulate mechanization it should make them available to collectives as well as to individuals. It should not discriminate against collectives as is often the case now.

    Next to rural organization the most important problem is costs. Most people consider mechanization to be much too expensive for peasants to undertake. However, complete sets of equipment to handle a wheat-corn-peanut rotation can be supplied for a capital investment of be tween 100 and 150 yuan per mu. This does not include irrigation equipment. (At the official rate the Chinese yuan exchanges at 3.72 to the U.S. dollar but the actual rate which is now available to certain units at foreign exchange markets is around 7 to the dollar.)


    With depreciation figured at seven years and interest figured at 8 percent ownership cost would then run about 22-33 yuan per mu per year. Since many villages already have much basic equipment, especially for tillage, they would not need that much total new investment.

    Mechanization costing 22-33 yuan per year (ownership cost) can save up to twenty days labor per mu. With labor priced at 3 yuan a day, that is 60 yuan. In addition, one can expect a fair increase in crop yield due to organic matter build-up, timeliness, and uniformity.

Forms of Government Support

    To promote mechanization the government should consider adopting some of the measures used by the U.S. government in support of farm mechanization since World War II. At one time, for example, federal tax regulations rewarded anyone who invested heavily in productive equipment. For many years the government offered investment credit that in proportion to the investment made, cut down heavily on income taxes due. Producers found it advantageous to buy new equipment rather than turn money over to the government in taxes.

    In addition, the U.S. government directly subsidized technical innovations useful to environmental preservation. For example, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service paid about one-third of the cost of no-till planters during the 1970s. This agency also made loans on grain in on-farm approved storage so that farmers could pay production expenses without selling grain at low harvest-time prices; farmers paid off the loans when they sold their grain, but if prices fell below the loan rate the government bought the grain. Through the Production Credit Association, moreover, the government granted credit for equipment purchases at reasonable rates to be amortized over seven years.

    Over the years the U.S. government adopted many financial measures affecting prices, credits, taxes, and other economic factors that helped farmers stay in business. These included the promotion of exports, the buying of surpluses, direct production subsidies, and direct crop reduction subsidies.

    While none of the measure may be suitable for China, China does need to adopt policies that will support not only agricultural production but also agricultural mechanization. A number of problems need attention now.

    First is the price of farm equipment. Currently, manufacturers, by government decree, price farm equipment at disastrously low levels. The farm equipment industry cannot make money at such rates, consequently no one wants to manufacture farm equipment. The low prices are designed to aid peasants, but they are hard on the industry so in the long run peasants have little or nothing to buy. Perhaps the subsidy should go, instead, directly to the purchaser, while the industry charges competitive prices.

    Custom charges for machine work also need remedying. In the past, the prices that farm machinery operators charged for plowing, planting, reaping, and combining were set far too low. They hardly covered the cost of the operation, not to mention depreciation and debt service on the machinery. As a result, as old machinery wore out, no one could afford new machinery. Even though custom work prices have recently been deregulated, the tradition of charging very low prices for such services to peasants still persists in many places.

    Finally, agricultural piece-work and flat rate standards need to be adjusted. These should follow actual practice, not attempt to set practice, which tends to obstruct creativity and innovation.

    Finding the right equipment for the various agricultural regions in China will require investment and planning. The authorities should select demonstration villages in each crop zone and there test out machinery in actual production. Technicians should select the best equipment for the purpose from all over the world, including China, and concentrate it in these centers to be tested, modified, and proven. Almost all tractors and implements now produced in China are of models long outdated. Most, based on U.S. prototypes from the 1930s, came from the USSR in the 1950s. Why should China produce up-to-date automobiles, ships, trains, planes, rockets, factory, mining, and construction equipment, yet still turn out farm equipment from the 1930s? Most of these models are both clumsy and fragile, plagued with both design and quality problems. They often give mechanization a bad name. If agriculture is the base why not build a solid, efficient modern base?

    In order to mechanize agriculture smoothly measures must be taken to coordinate industry with agriculture. Currently those who make farm equipment don't use it, sell it to the end user or service it and those who use it don't make it. Industry offers only a few prototypes on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Model changes are slow and far between. Factories take no responsibility once the equipment leaves their door.

    In Europe and North America the manufacturer must both sell and service what he makes. Company field men and dealers under contract follow up each sale with service, parts, and advice. There is constant two-way interchange between farmer and dealer and farmer and company either through the dealer or directly through field representatives. The livelihood of both company and dealer depend on customer satisfaction, on quality, on service, and on the quality of service.

    China should find ways to link manufacturer and user more closely. More local autonomy for the manufacturer and less ding xing would help. Ding xing, or "setting the form," the official approval of all designs prior to making allocation of materials, tends to create extreme rigidity throughout the industry and inhibits the development of the diversity which China must have for mechanization. Mechanization is on the verge of rapid expansion. Labor shortages and high wages in certain parts of China are pushing people toward the use of farm machinery. The peasants are generally ahead of the government and of industry on this question.

    The ministries, bureaus, and units concerned should seize the time, solve the problem of creating complete sets for all-around mechanization and take the lead in the modernization of farming. Money must be appropriated, foreign exchange approved, prototypes imported, tests and trials conducted. This is a big task on today's agenda.

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